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Thunderbolt 4 arrives in 2020, but USB will remain the king of PC ports

USB 4 will transfer data just as swiftly, but Intel promises other innovations for Thunderbolt.

HP Spectre x360 Thunderbolt/USB-C ports

HP Spectre x360 laptops come with combination Thunderbolt and USB-C ports.

Stephen Shankland/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

The first PCs using Thunderbolt 4 will arrive this year along with Intel's new Tiger Lake processor, but it appears the all-purpose port won't be any faster at transferring data than the 4-year-old Thunderbolt 3. There's still room for other improvements, but it looks like competition from USB will remain strong.

Intel announced its Thunderbolt 4 plans this week at CES but declined to share details. The chipmaker promised it would be four times faster than today's USB, then clarified it was talking about the USB 3.1 version at 10 gigabits per second. Thunderbolt 3, though, already can transfer data at 40Gbps.

Still, you can expect other changes. "It standardizes PC platform requirements and adds the latest Thunderbolt innovations," Intel spokeswoman Sarah Kane said in a statement, adding that Intel plans to share more about Thunderbolt 4 later.

Thunderbolt, embraced first by Apple in 2011 and later by some Windows PC makers, has proved popular in high-end computing situations demanding a multipurpose connector. A single Thunderbolt port can link to external monitors, network adapters, storage systems and more. But Intel's years-long ambition to make Thunderbolt mainstream hasn't succeeded. Instead, USB remains the workhorse port.

Thunderbolt not mainstream

Intel liberalized Thunderbolt licensing so others could make Thunderbolt controller chips, and with 2019's Ice Lake processor, Intel built Thunderbolt directly into its processors. Both those moves could popularize the technology and help Intel advance its agenda of keeping the PC relevant as the place to get serious work done. Tiger Lake is the brain inside Intel's Horseshoe Bend folding-screen PC prototype that's designed for that mission.

But Ice Lake arrived years late, and USB is incorporating Thunderbolt 3 technology into USB 4, expected to debut in products later this year and doubling its speed to 40Gbps from today's possible 20Gbps, so Thunderbolt's future still seems bright only in high-end machines.

Intel's Ice Lake processors were the first chips with dedicated Thunderbolt circuitry, making it easier for laptop makers to include the high-speed port. Tiger Lake successor chips in 2020 will include Thunderbolt 4.

Intel's Ice Lake processors were the first chips with dedicated Thunderbolt circuitry, making it easier for laptop makers to include the high-speed port. Tiger Lake successor chips in 2020 will include Thunderbolt 4.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

You'll see Thunderbolt on premium machines like Apple's MacBooks, HP's Spectre x360 and Dell's XPS laptops. But Thunderbolt is missing from Apple's iPad Pro and from Microsoft's Surface Laptop 3, so it's hardly a clean sweep for high-end gadgets. That means if you have an external Thunderbolt drive, docking station or network adapter, you can't be sure it'll work on any old computer. But you can bet USB will be there.

Thunderbolt still has a place

Still, Thunderbolt remains useful, particularly to people who need top performance. And the newest USB standards are a muddle. The newer USB-C connector is small enough for both phones and laptops, but sometimes USB-C cables and ports only can handle ages-old USB 2 data rates of 480Mbps. And while USB-C is good for charging devices that need up to a hefty 100 watts of power -- plenty to charge a high-end laptop -- not every USB-C port is capable of charging a device. Thunderbolt offers a more consistent set of high-end abilities so you don't need to worry about those details so much.

"USB-C has won over the market in the last few years, but it can sometimes be complex and confusing for consumers," said Bernie Thompson, chief executive of peripheral maker Plugable, which introduced three new Thunderbolt peripherals at CES.

Plugable's $300 TBT3-UDZ docking station offers seven old-style USB-A ports (up from five in the previous product), two HDMI and two DisplayPort video ports, an Ethernet jack, and the ability to deliver 100W to a laptop it's plugged in to. And this year it'll plug in to a laptop's USB-C port too, not just Thunderbolt.

Two other accessories, though, use USB-C. Plugable's $40 video dongle connects to two 4K 60Hz HDMI displays, and its $50 Ethernet dongle handles 2.5Gbps network speeds. 

"USB's original promise was 'If you can plug it in, and a driver can be installed, it will work,'" Thompson said. "By contrast, USB-C has more capabilities but also more-complex compatibility that is hardware-specific. Just because it fits, doesn't mean it will work."

So at least for now, Thunderbolt's simplicity gives it an edge over USB, even if you have to pay for it.